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Nico Verkroost: "Milking is no longer a must."

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Dairy farmer Nico Verkroost has three SAC Gemini milking robots to milk his 130 cows. He has a double box and a single one. "Cows and heifers that need my attention go into the single box. It works quite well."

"I milk with SAC, and my father also milked with a SAC milking machine. We have 49 years of experience with SAC Milking," proudly tells dairy farmer Nico Verkroost from Westbroek, Utrecht. When they decided to switch to robotic milking, it was natural for it to be a SAC, right? 'Well, no, it wasn't like that," says the dairy farmer, laughing. "Of course, we also looked at other brands of robots. But ultimately, we chose SAC Milking again because it still came out on top, including in terms of price."

With grazing: three boxes

Until July 2022, Nico milked his 130 dairy and calf cows in a 2 x 10 Rapid-Exit milking parlour. A stable that was about 22 years old and due for replacement. 'We had to do a significant update to the software, to the milk meters, and that would also mean that we would have to continue milking for quite a few more years in this milking parlour. And then you also have to factor in costs for milkers. About 2.5 years ago, I decided to switch to automatic milking."

In the search, it was also important that the cows have access to grazing. "With two robots, we actually didn't have enough. The other brands were still trying to convince us to go with two systems, but SAC immediately said we'd better take three. You simply need more capacity."

User-friendly robot

The dairy farmer from Utrecht was the first to start using the Gemini powered by SAC. "That also means you're pioneering because such an installation is new even for the technicians. But honestly, we haven't really experienced any problems. It milks to our liking, the robot is very user-friendly, and we quickly mastered the operation. Basically, they are three mini milking parlours." In the barn, there is a double box where two cows can be milked simultaneously, and one robot arm connects one cow after another in rapid succession. The second robot is on the other side of the feed alley where the cows have access to a row of lying stalls. "Heifers and newly milked cows walk to that robot, which works very easily," says Nico, indicating that there is a separation area behind the robot. "There, a cow can go to the robot on her own and then return to the separation area." In the Gemini Up, the cow even has 15% more space. Because she has more space, she walks more easily inside and will enter the box earlier. To separate the necessary cows, he can create a waiting area with a handy barrier. Cow selection is also possible via the milking robot, and adding extra selection gates is also an option. These can also be controlled by the Gemini and the Gemini UP. While in the separation area, the separated cows can be milked via the unique VIP system, so they don't lose their routine. "All cows that need help or attention are grouped together like this. It saves a lot of work that I don't have to do at three, but at one box. In the double box, there are cows that I don't have to worry about." In this regard, Nico can mention another important advantage of the SAC Gemini. "I can manually attach the cows, which is very user-friendly and nice for the cow."

Initially as feed boxes

The dairy farmer is very satisfied with the adjustment the cows have made. "The cow gets used to it, as a farmer, it takes a bit longer." According to Nico, the cows almost walked in by themselves. "We sent the guys who came to help home pretty quickly, it started working smoothly on its own." To get the cows used to it quickly, they came up with a clever trick. "The SAC guys said we should use the robots as feed boxes for the first two weeks." That was easy to do because the robot was placed at the front and in the middle of the barn, so milking in the old milking parlour could continue as usual. "Because the cows were already getting concentrate, the device was familiar to them, they also know milking, so it felt very familiar to the cows very quickly". Of course, the pre-treatment process is also taken over by the robot. In the Gemini Up, there is a modified pre-treatment cup. This cup ensures a good cleaning of all teats and provides the right stimulation.

Different work routine

Nico had to find his rhythm for a moment. "There you are on the first morning. You don't have to milk, but what are you going to do?" His work routine - "you have to get the hang of it" - consists of cleaning the camera three times a day and making sure the robot stays clean. "You have to learn a different rhythm. For example, if I have to treat a cow, I enter the treatment in the software first, and then I treat her," he describes. "I can't say that I've saved tons of time with robotic milking; it depends on the number of cows to pick up and new heifers. If there's no cow with mastitis and few cows to pick up, then it's easy." After thinking about it a little longer, Nico does say that he was quicker with the first cut of mowing this year. "I could start earlier in the morning, and I could also work longer in the evening. Milking is no longer a must." Nico's wife adds to him. "Mentally, it was a transition. You have to learn to let go, not immediately get anxious if a cow hasn't been there for 12 hours." The app on the phone, which Nico uses regularly, helps with that. "This way, I can follow the robot 'remotely." The same data is available in OneView, the management system, on a tablet, PC, or on the robot.

Working with an attention list

The interaction with the cows has also changed, Nico indicates. "A cow that you don't see or notice, is doing well," he summarizes. "You start looking at cows very differently." A cow that needs extra attention appears in OneView with a red bar. "Then she hasn't been milked, then there's usually something wrong." Nico always looks at the computer list with such an attention cow first when he walks into the barn in the morning. "Then I'll scrape the boxes for a bit, and then the list is usually already pretty short." He also praises the ease of use of the Gemini. "No matter which robot I'm at, I can check and enter everything on the screen, from all three robots." The Gemini Up has the same ease of use as the Gemini.

Especially heifers

Cows perform better with automatic milking, Nico concludes about 8 months after the transition. "Heifers clearly produce more milk, the older cows all have to calve first." The average production ranges between 27 and 30 liters per day, although the components have come under some pressure. "We're at 4.40% fat and 3.65% protein, and the cows come three times a day." With the upgraded Gemini Up, the cow is milked faster, allowing the cow to focus on milk production more quickly. The somatic cell count fluctuates around 150 and continues to decrease steadily," adds Nico. "After such a transition, you see that the somatic cell count initially rises, but then it decreases again." The bacterial count is at 12, very neat for robotic milking.

We have invested in making the work easier and more enjoyable After the robots were in operation, the next phase of the construction plan began, which also included a new barn with young cattle, dry cows, and a calving pen. Nico removed the old milking parlour himself, and in its place, 25 extra boxes were created. "Then we can still grow in the number of cows, but it won't be much more than 140 cows," Nico indicates. "With the renovation and the robots, we have invested in making the work easier and more enjoyable. This provides years of job satisfaction."

With the Gemini UP, the washing unit and the vacuum pump are installed outside the milking robot. Due to this upgrade, more than one robot can be connected to the central washing unit. The same applies to the vacuum pump. Your automatic milking system can easily grow with your business, bringing more peace to the barn.

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